In 2016, Jennifer Batchelor headed to her local Whole Foods in Las Vegas in search of a good product for stress relief. First, an employee walked her to the supplement aisle. "When they realized I wasn't happy with that, they walked me to the wine," she says. Not exactly what she had in mind either.
Batchelor wanted a different kind of product: a drink that makes you feel good with none of the downsides of alcohol. And she figured she wasn't the only one.?
So she started investigating nootropics, which are herbs and synthetic compounds that supposedly offer cognition-enhancing benefits. She also teamed up with Matthew Cauble, who was one of the four co-founders behind the buzzy meal-replacement drink company Soylent that launched in 2014. Four years later, the duo launched Kin, a line of non-alcoholic beverages that claim to enhance a person's clarity, calm, and creativity, among other benefits. The herb and floral-flavored drinks carry the tag line "All bliss, no booze."
With the Brooklyn-based Kin, 35-year-old Batchelor is aiming to create a new category she calls "euphorics" and, in the process, to bring the wellness trend into the bar scene. Her timing is smart: Nearly half of regular wine drinkers, including two-thirds of Millennials, say they're trying to drink less alcohol, mostly for health reasons, according to Nielsen.
"There's empowerment in being conscious and having agency over how you want to feel, and not just drinking a counterpart under the table," Batchelor says.
For now, the goal is to get Kin on more tables. While most of the brand's sales come via its website, Kin has more than 75 wholesale partners, including over 40 restaurants and bars in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, San Francisco, New Orleans, and Kansas City. Kin is also sold at select grocery markets including Erewhon Market, which operates several locations in Los Angeles.
Other outlets include co-working spaces, holistic health clubs, and music festivals. And Kin is busy investing in its own venues on both coasts: Kin opened a West Hollywood Clubhouse in early 2019 and a studio in Brooklyn late last year.
Redefining a Ritual
The road to starting a booze-free beverage company for Batchelor arguably started long before she stepped into that Whole Foods and began researching the wellness industry. She was born in Saudi Arabia, where it is still illegal to drink alcohol. Her father worked as an airline mechanic and ran an illegal pub and cocktail bar out of their family's home. She later moved to Tallahassee, Florida, with her family, when she was 16.
"It was my first experience with the good things of alcohol: the ritual of bringing people together with a beverage," says Batchelor of her time in Saudi Arabia. If all goes according to plan, she wants Kin to be a new ritual in people's lives.
Currently the company offers two drinks: High Rhode, a caffeinated beverage with floral notes, and Dream Light, a spiced ginger nightcap, which launched in December 2019. Batchelor says she's purposefully not rolling the products out to as many venues as possible to instead focus on finding "the right players" who know the neighborhood and can cater to the right audience.
The company's own venues also allow Batchelor to more fully control how people experience Kin. It's a strategy that will be key as the company unveils additional product lines, she says.
In conjunction with its Dream Light launch, Kin opened a temporary sleep-themed space in Brooklyn called Moon Rise Studio. The location was outfitted with a fog machine and tufts of fabric plastered to the walls to look like clouds. Its West Hollywood Clubhouse--a mid-century modern-styled bungalow--opened in early 2019 with a series of select events including disco parties, comedy nights, and workshops. It was reintroduced for private events in January 2020. The company also recently moved its headquarters into a townhouse in Brooklyn's Williamsburg neighborhood with the plan of turning it into a community hub.
Barriers to Wider Adoption
Kin's promise to offer an alternative to alcohol that makes people feel good has hit a welcome note with investors. In May 2019, Kin landed $5 million in funding from venture capital firms Refactor Capital, Canaan, and Fifty Years. "We felt there was a very timely shift toward millions of people wanting that," says Byron Ling, a partner at Canaan. Alcohol-consumption trends validate his thinking. With more people concerned about health and wellness, the number of mocktail and spirit-free drinks on U.S. menus has grown 46 percent from 2015 to 2019, according to recent data from research firm Mintel.
Even so, wider adoption of products like Kin may still be limited, as some of its ingredients, known as adaptogens, haven't been studied much by the medical profession. While ingredients like Rhodiola rosea have been proved to reduce cortisol, which is known to relieve stress and work as a sleep aid, others, such as GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), a neurotransmitter found in the central nervous system, haven't performed consistently under medical examination. The food supplement version of GABA is thought to boost a person's mood or have a calming, relaxing effect on the nervous system, but some studies have shown that it's nothing more than a placebo.
Batchelor dismisses the skepticism. "We're not coming out with a new ingredient that we invented or resource from, you know, somewhere in Fiji. All of these ingredients have been on the American market for 60 years," she says, adding that the company consulted pharmacologists and endocrinologists to determine the proper dosage and ingredient pairings.
Finally, while Kin does not currently use cannabidiol, or CBD, in its beverages, it is in direct competition with CBD-infused drinks, which are made from a compound typically derived from hemp or marijuana. The popularity of CBD is driven mostly by "a desire to have social interaction and relaxation without alcohol," says Amanda Topper, associate director of food service research at Mintel.
Batchelor says rather than worry about the competition, she is focused on expanding her line of drinks, ideally one for every kind of social interaction. Next up is a drink that "plays into creativity and arousal," she says.
"We see a euphoric for every social dynamic and every occasion. So I think for us it's just a matter of staying focused and not letting our own personal whims and dreams of the company get the best of us," says Batchelor.
Corrections: An earlier version of this article mischaracterized the effect of rhodiola on the human body. It reduces cortisol. It also misstated Bryon Ling's job title. He is a partner at Canaan.